Daryl Morey did the right thing — at first.
In a Friday night tweet that he has since deleted, the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for the legions of protesters who have taken to the streets of Hong Kong.
The demonstrations started as a protest against a new Chinese extradition bill that opponents believe would lead to the disappearance of Hong Kong’s critics of the Chinese regime, as well as infringe upon the limited independence the semi-autonomous region enjoys. The bill was pulled in September, but the protesters have additional demands, including an independent inquiry on police brutality and the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
These are understandable fears when dealing with a Communist regime like China’s. And the NBA has long been known as perhaps the most free-thinking, outspoken league when it comes to the politics of its players. (Just last week, the governor of California signed a controversial bill into law on a television show hosted by LeBron James, arguably the league’s most visible player.)
However, the problem for Morey is that the Chinese also love basketball. And thanks surely to the stardom of former Rockets great Yao Ming — now the head of the Chinese Basketball Association — Houston trailed only Golden State in popularity in the nation, per a recent survey. There appears to be too much money to be made in China for the NBA to stand up for human rights.
Yao himself responded to Morey’s tweet with condemnation, calling it “an inappropriate comment related to Hong Kong” and the CBA suspended its “exchanges and cooperation” with the Rockets. Chinese sportswear maker Li-Ning did the same, suspending its association with the team. The Chinese government also weighed in via its consulate, saying that it was “deeply shocked” by the tweet. The Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, quickly disowned Morey’s tweet:
Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi
— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019
The Rockets and the NBA could have stood up for Morey, for decency, and for the protesters and their human rights. More than 2,000 have been injured in months of demonstrations that the Chinese government characterizes as “riots,” but selling sneakers, jerseys, and the game But they instead folded all too readily, all too eager to hold onto the dollars that they glean from the Communist nation.
The NBA issued a sorry statement, declaring the league realizes that the tweet may have “deeply offended” Chinese fans and that they “have great respect for the history and culture of China,” as if that had anything to do with a bill that could be used to disappear journalists and critics of an autocratic regime. Morey, who The Ringer reports was at one point in jeopardy of losing his job, tweeted his own apology that read like it was dictated by his boss. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, published an open letter on Facebook that referred to protesters as a “separatist movement.” Even James Harden, the Rockets’ star guard, issued a mea culpa for some reason, even though he wasn’t involved.
That last bit of rank submission to an autocratic regime captured the full extent of the NBA’s sellout to China. Several politicians on the left and right, including presidential candidate Julián Castro and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), called out the NBA’s cowardice. Even Rockets fan Ted Cruz took a principled stand:
We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
For all its MLK Day t-shirts and other symbolic gestures towards wokeness here in the States, this is still the league that sees fit to do business with a regime that represses human rights whenever given the chance.The league even has a presence in Xinjang, in the northwest of the country. It is the Chinese region where Slate reported last year the nation’s authorities were holding roughly one million Muslims, the Turkic-speaking minority called Uighurs, in concentration camps. The NBA has a different kind of camp there — one of its three national training camps — in Ürümqi, Xinjang’s capital.
Update: Both CCTV, the Chinese state-run television network, and digital streaming rights owner Tencent announced Tuesday that they were suspending plans to broadcast preseason NBA games.
The decision came in the wake of Morey’s tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s defense of Morey in an interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo, Japan. “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear,” Silver said, “that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
CCTV not only disagreed but appeared to try to redefine the First Amendment for Silver. “We are strongly dissatisfied and we oppose Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” CCTV said in its statement in Chinese — as translated by CNBC, which also reported that the state-run TV channel will “immediately investigate all co-operation and exchanges involving the NBA.”
Correction: This article was amended to note Ben Sasse is a Republican Senator from Nebraska.